Early Betting, Bracket Predictions for All 32 First-Round Games
Feb 11, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Grayson Allen (3) reacts to a play during the second half against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at McCamish Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
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No Saint Mary’s. Absurd. Arizona State instead of Louisville or Notre Dame. Come on, committee. Michigan State and Duke headed for a Sweet 16 matchup? That will screw up some future bets. But, let’s face it, the real tragedy Sunday night wasn’t how the committee ignored high-quality teams for more suspect, high-profile squads under the guise of “stronger opponents.” I think we can all agree it was the selection show broadcast. From the format to the technical glitches, this one needs a reboot for 2019.
The good news? Now we get to the games. So let’s do it.
#1 Kansas (-15) vs. #16 Penn
Thursday, 2 p.m. ET | Wichita, KS
Analysis: This is one of the worst draws I’ve ever seen for a No. 1 seed. First, I was surprised to see Penn as a No. 16. Second, it’s not a great matchup for the Jayhawks. Penn will slow the game up, limiting Kansas in transition (where it is deadly). Kansas is also one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country (No. 12 at 40.3%), but guess which team ranks No. 1 in the tourney (and No. 2 in the nation) in 3-point defense? The Penn Quakers at 29.4%. Penn is also a well-coached team that plays such an analytically smart game. They look for easy 2s and open 3s. If Udoka Azubuike is healthy, this is a foul-risk game. While Kansas will have a massive athletic advantage and is now better equipped to play without Azubuike (as it showed in the Big 12 tourney), Penn can hang. This will look more like a 15/2 game than a 16/1.
Early ATS lean: Penn (+15)
Early bracket lean: Kansas — Stuckey
#8 Seton Hall (-2) vs. #9 N.C. State
Thursday, 4:30 p.m. ET | Wichita, KS
Analysis: A first-round battle between two branches of the Rick Pitino coaching tree with Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard and N.C. State’s Kevin Keatts. This is the third straight NCAA appearance for Seton Hall, but it has been bounced in the first round the past two seasons. This is the last chance for the Pirates’ four seniors to get a “W” in the tourney. Led by four-year staring point guard Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall won’t be rattled by N.C. State’s full-court pressure. Another concern for the Pack: Once their press gets broken, they are dead last in the ACC in 2-point defense (297th of 351 nationally) and also rank 303rd nationally in offensive rebound percentage allowed.
Early ATS lean: Seton Hall (-2)
Early bracket lean: Seton Hall — Wes Reynolds
#5 Clemson (-5) vs. #12 New Mexico State
Friday, 9:55 p.m. ET | San Diego, CA
Analysis: This is a really tough draw for Clemson. Tigers coach Brad Brownell has strayed from motion sets to a pick-and-roll-based offense, and NMSU is an outstanding pick-and-roll defense. Clemson’s small guards and wings have struggled defensively against bigger wings who can put the ball on the floor. NMSU has two of those in 6-foot-4 Zach Lofton and 6-foot-5 Swiss army knife Jemerrio Jones. I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked to see the Aggies roll in this one.
Early ATS lean: New Mexico State (+5)
Early bracket lean: New Mexico State — Jordan Majewski
#4 Auburn (-10.5) vs. #13 College of Charleston
Friday, 7:25 p.m. ET | San Diego, CA
Analysis: Auburn is vulnerable to teams with length and athleticism in the frontcourt. That isn’t Charleston. Bruce Pearl’s offenses are always phenomenal in how they use their hybrid bigs in pick-and-roll, and C of C’s frontcourt has been lost all season defending that action. But Charleston does have a deep and solid backcourt led by Joe Chealey and Grant Riller, and the Cougars are an excellent transition defense, always key against Auburn.
Early ATS lean: College of Charleston (+10.5)
Early bracket lean: Auburn — Jordan Majewski
#3 Michigan State (-13.5) vs. #14 Bucknell
Friday, 7:10 p.m. ET | Detroit, MI
Analysis: Obviously any No. 3 seed is a “tough draw” if you’re a mid-major, but Sparty is the worst 3-seed Bucknell could have drawn. The Bison are one of the most post-reliant offenses in the country with 6-foot-10 forward Nana Foulland (15.4 ppg), but MSU is, of course, outstanding at defending at the rim. Bucknell also doesn’t gamble defensively, and exposing MSU’s turnover issues is the best way to find a crack in Sparty.
Early ATS lean: Michigan State (-13.5)
Early bracket lean: Michigan State — Jordan Majewski
#6 TCU vs. #11 Arizona State or Syracuse
Friday, 9:40 p.m. ET | Detroit, MI
Analysis: My reaction to Syracuse being included in this field was apoplectic to say the least. The Orange beat exactly zero top-four seeds, with their best win coming over 5-seed Clemson at home. On the other hand, ASU has two convincing wins over No. 1 seeds (Kansas and Xavier). Nevertheless, I almost always back the team in the play-in game that least deserves to be in, and will do so here. I actually like the Orange to get past TCU and make it to the round of 32, too.
Early ATS lean: N/A (no spread yet with play-in game)
Early bracket lean: Syracuse — Wes Reynolds
#7 Rhode Island (-1) vs. #10 Oklahoma
Thursday 12:15 p.m. ET | Pittsburgh, PA
Analysis: After everything people have seen out of Oklahoma recently, I’m assuming Rhode Island might be a trendy pick to not only beat Oklahoma, but give Duke a run. However, something has been off with Rhode Island in recent weeks. I really wanted OU in the tourney to see Trae Young play some non-Big 12 defenses. The Sooners will be as fresh as they’ve been all year. The Rams commits a ton of fouls (269th in the country in foul percentage per possession at 24.4%); Oklahoma can capitalize, as it shoots 74.8% at the line. Expect Young to live at the charity stripe.
#2 Duke (-19.5) vs. #15 Iona
Thursday 2:45 p.m. ET | Pittsburgh, PA
Analysis: This one might not be as easy as Duke wants it to be. Iona is an annual tournament team, and it has the guards and wings to shoot over Duke’s zone. Iona coach Tim Cluess also likes to extend zone pressure, and Duke’s propensity to turn the ball over has been an issue all year. Ultimately, Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter will wear the Gaels down at the rim, but if some shots fall early for Iona, it can compete for a while.
Early ATS lean: Iona (+19.5)
Early bracket lean: Duke — Jordan Majewski
#1 Virginia (-22.5) vs. #16 UMBC
Friday 9:20 p.m. ET | Charlotte, NC
Analysis: UMBC is led by a fantastic guard in Jairus Lyles, but this is a nightmare matchup for the Terriers, who prefer to run. Virginia leads the NCAA in scoring defense (53.3 ppg) and grinds the game to a halt on the offensive end. UVA averaged just 62.1 possessions per game (fewest in the nation).
Early ATS lean: Virginia (-22.5)
Early bracket lean: Virginia — Stuckey
#8 Creighton (-1.5) vs. #9 Kansas State
Friday 6:50 p.m. ET | Charlotte, NC
Analysis: When in doubt, I always look to the better defensive team if they are an underdog. That’s the situation we have here with Kansas State. (An important caveat: Keep an eye on the status of the Wildcats’ Dean Wade, who averaged 16.5 points per game and missed the Big 12 Tournament semifinal against Kansas with a foot injury.) Public bettors will want to back the more exciting offensive team (Creighton) vs. a team that is kind of like oatmeal (Kansas State). However, I like a good bowl of oatmeal from time to time.
Early ATS lean: Kansas State (+1.5)
Early bracket lean: Kansas State — Wes Reynolds
#5 Kentucky (-6) vs. #12 Davidson
Thursday 7:10 p.m. ET | Boise, ID
Analysis: This has the makings of an extremely interesting game. Davidson coach Bob McKillop is an offensive genius, and his motion offense will be incredibly tough for a young Kentucky team to prepare for, as it hasn’t seen anything like it all year. UK is an excellent pick-and-roll defense with all its switchable length and athleticism. That’s absolutely useless against Davidson’s scissor-cut motion. Additionally, McKillop has switched to a 2-3 zone this year, which is ideal against UK, as Davidson can’t guard Kentucky in man-to-man anyway. Both teams are playing excellent basketball heading into the tournament, and UK’s athleticism might win out, but Davidson is an incredibly difficult team for John Calipari’s young squad to simulate in preparation.
Early ATS lean: Davidson (+6)
Early bracket lean: Kentucky — Jordan Majewski
#4 Arizona (-8.5) vs. #13 Buffalo
Thursday 9:40 p.m. ET | Boise, Idaho
Analysis: The Bulls are the most athletic mid-major team in the field. Coach Nate Oats can roll out three point guards at a time, and Arizona’s pack-line defense has been poor in dribble containment all season. Unfortunately, the Bulls’ most glaring weakness is their post defense, and Deandre Ayton should eat all night.
Early ATS lean: Buffalo (+8.5)
Early bracket lean: Arizona — Jordan Majewski
#3 Tennessee (-13) vs. #14 Wright State
Thursday 12:50 p.m. ET | Dallas, TX
Analysis: Tennessee’s flex offense is predicated on its athletic and versatile frontcourt, and while 6-foot-9, 300-pound freshman Loudon Love is a load in the paint for the Raiders, he can’t match up against Grant Williams (15.3 ppg) and Admiral Schofield (13.6 ppg). Wright State’s press and half-court offense simply aren’t good enough to have a legitimate chance at scoring an upset, but the Raiders are extremely well-coached by Scott Nagy, and Wright State will certainly be prepared.
Early ATS lean: Wright State (+13)
Early bracket lean: Tennessee — Jordan Majewski
#6 Miami (-2.5) vs. #11 Loyola Chicago
Thursday 3:10 p.m. ET | Dallas, TX
Analysis: The Ramblers are an extremely balanced team with an outstanding coach in Porter Moser, who grew from the Rick Majerus tree. Loyola has a power-conference talent at the point in Clayton Custer, and it exploits mismatches against Miami’s constantly switching man-to-man defense. Extremely tough draw for the Canes.
Early ATS lean: Loyola Chicago +2.5
Early bracket lean: Loyola Chicago — Jordan Majewski
#7 Nevada vs. #10 Texas (PK)
Friday 4:30 p.m. ET | Nashville, TN
Analysis: Texas, a top-10 national defense, opened as an underdog. Nevada has been playing essentially six guys since the loss of Lindsay Drew. That loss also left the Wolf Pack without a true point guard. Texas got 6-foot-11 stud freshman Mo Bamba back for its last game in the Big 12 Tournament (played 14 minutes), and Nevada’s tallest player is only 6-foot-7. Texas should be able to impose its physicality on Nevada like San Diego State did in the Mountain West Tournament.
Early ATS lean: Texas (PK)
Early bracket lean: Texas — Wes Reynolds
#2 Cincinnati (-15) vs. #15 Georgia State
Friday 2 p.m. ET | Nashville, TN
Analysis: Georgia State is a pretty difficult matchup for Cincy to draw as a 2-seed. Ron Hunter’s squad plays a tricky extended 1-3-1 matchup zone, and Cincy has certainly had its issues in zone offense this year. Georgia State won’t be able to score, as Cincy has size and length to switch on D’Marcus Simonds (21.2 ppg) all game, but it won’t be pretty for the Bearcats’ offense, either. Great game to target the under.
Early ATS lean: Georgia State (+15)
Early bracket lean: Cincinnati — Jordan Majewski
#1 Xavier vs. #16 N.C. Central or Texas Southern
Friday 7:20 p.m. ET | Nashville, TN
Analysis: Xavier won’t struggle to beat either of these teams, but N.C. Central can at least somewhat compete against the Muskies on the glass for a potential cover. Xavier ranks 11th nationally in total rebounding rate (55.1%). NC Central ranks 68th at 52.0%, while Texas Southern ranks 248th at 48.7%
Early ATS lean: N/A (no spread yet with play-in game)
Early bracket lean: Xavier — Stuckey
#8 Missouri (-1.5) vs. #9 Florida State
Friday 9:50 p.m. ET | Nashville, TN
Analysis: This is one of the toughest calls for me in the first round. Future lottery pick Michael Porter Jr. has played just 25 minutes this season (14 points, 10 rebounds), 23 of which came in a loss to Georgia in the SEC Tournament. However, that early exit Friday allowed more practice time. I would expect Mizzou to use Porter more as a facilitator on offense for a team that ranks in the top 25 nationally in 3-point shooting. The Tigers also get to the foul line regularly and shoot it pretty well (59th of 351 teams in free-throw rate). Florida State ranks 287th in the country at the line at an abysmal 68.5%.
Early ATS lean: Missouri -1.5
Early bracket lean: Missouri — Wes Reynolds
#5 Ohio State (-7.5) vs. #12 South Dakota State
Thursday 4 p.m. ET | Boise, ID
Analysis: The Jackrabbits are experienced and have been here before. Having the best mid-major center in the country, Mike Daum (23.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg) also helps. The Dauminator is the type of pick-and-pop big who can give Ohio State’s compact defense some issues, but ultimately SDSU’s wings are no match for the athleticism of Jae’Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop.
Early ATS lean: Ohio State (-7.5)
Early bracket lean: Ohio State — Jordan Majewski
#4 Gonzaga (-12.5) vs. #13 UNC Greensboro
Thursday 1:30 p.m. ET | Boise, ID
Analysis: At first blush, I think Gonzaga wins this region, but it has an annoying first-round match up with UNCG. The Spartans employ a 1-2-2 zone press and press at the highest rate of any team in the field. UNCG also has the country’s most underrated rim defender in 6-foot-10 forward James Dickey, who is a fringe NBA prospect with his length, athleticism and ability to get off the floor quickly. Dickey owns the country’s 24th-highest block rate. Offensively, Gonzaga runs sharpshooter Francis Alonso off a million screens in the half court. Gonzaga’s press offense is excellent, and 6-foot-10 stretch forward Killian Tillie will force Dickey away from the rim. The Bulldogs will win, and likely pull away, but this is a first-round matchup that requires Mark Few and his staff’s full attention, which they’re probably annoyed about.
Early ATS lean: Gonzaga (-12.5)
Early bracket lean: Gonzaga — Jordan Majewski
#3 Michigan (-11.5) vs. #14 Montana
Thursday 9:50 p.m. ET | Wichita, KS
Analysis: This is a good first-round matchup for the Wolverines. Montana’s bigs can’t defend Moe Wagner in pick-and-roll, and the Grizzlies are incredibly reliant on getting to the free-throw line on offense. Michigan never fouls at a high rate under John Beilein, and 6-foot guard Zavier Simpson has morphed into a quietly outstanding on-ball defender, key against Montana’s Michael Oguine (15.7 ppg).
Early ATS lean: Michigan (-11.5)
Early bracket lean: Michigan — Jordan Majewski
#6 Houston (-4) vs. #11 San Diego State
Thursday 7:20 p.m. ET | Wichita, KS
Analysis: Houston ranks as the eighth-best 2-point defense in the country, allowing only 43.8%. Don’t be fooled by San Diego State shooting a little over 50% overall in the Mountain West Tournament. The Aztecs got a boost from playing against undersized Nevada and a New Mexico team that gives up a fair share of easy baskets because of its full-court press. The Aztecs were sitting 13-10 on Valentine’s Day and ran off nine wins in a row all the way to the Mountain West Tournament title, but I get the feeling that they’re happy to be here, while Houston feels it has bigger fish to fry.
Early ATS lean: Houston (-4)
Early bracket lean: Houston — Wes Reynolds
#7 Texas A&M (-3.5) vs. #10 Providence
Friday 12:15 p.m. ET | Charlotte, NC
Analysis: I anticipate that Providence will be a trendy underdog for public bettors. Texas A&M is coming off a buzzer-beater loss to Collin Sexton and Alabama, while Providence beat Creighton (the win that locked them into the field), upset 1-seed Xavier and took Villanova, another 1-seed, to overtime in the Big East Tournament final. However, when you look at the numbers, the Aggies are the better team on both ends of the floor. They rank in the top 30 nationally in multiple defensive categories (effective FG%, defensive efficiency, 2-point defense, 3-point defense and block percentage). Sometimes when a team makes a great conference tournament run, it runs out of gas.
Early ATS lean: Texas A&M (-3.5)
Early bracket lean: Texas A&M — Wes Reynolds
#2 North Carolina (-19) vs. #15 Lipscomb
Friday 2:45 p.m. ET | Charlotte, NC
Analysis: The Bisons are going to have a chance to stay in this game for a while if the jump shots are falling. Lipscomb runs the same exact drag-screen transition offense and ball-screen motion that has made Belmont a household name in mid-major basketball. Lipscomb has uncharacteristically shot the ball poorly all season, so maybe the Bisons are due to break out of their season-long slump. They showed signs of doing just that in a trouncing of Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun Tournament final. FGCU is actually purposefully structured exactly like UNC, so Lipscomb knows what it is up against.
Early ATS lean: Lipscomb (+19)
Early bracket lean: North Carolina — Jordan Majewski
#1 Villanova vs. #16 LIU Brooklyn or Radford
Thursday 6:50 p.m. ET | Pittsburgh, PA
Analysis: The play-in game features two teams that like to occasionally press full court. The difference? LIU only generates turnovers on 16.1% of possessions (288th overall), while Radford’s press is much more effective (19.8% turnover rate, 69th in country). Radford is also better on the offensive glass. Neither will provide much of a threat to Villanova, but Radford will generate more extra possessions with its defense and on the offensive glass. The Highlanders (that’s Radford) are much more likely to cover a big number against the Wildcats, especially considering the pace difference. The last thing you want to do is try to run with Nova. Radford ranks 343rd in average possessions per game (66.0), compared to LIU which ranks 51st (74.3).
Early ATS lean: N/A (no spread yet with play-in game)
Early bracket lean: Villanova — Stuckey
#8 Virginia Tech (-2) vs. #9 Alabama
Thursday 9:20 p.m. ET | Pittsburgh, PA
Analysis: Alabama ranks 19th in the country in 3-point defense (31.9%), a necessity against a Virginia Tech team that shoots 38.5% from behind the arc (38th in the country). The Tide really struggle at the line (308th at 67.2%), but the Hokies aren’t much better (195th at 71.0%). These teams are so even, which means I will side with the best player on the court: Alabama’s stud frosh Collin Sexton.
Early ATS lean: Alabama (+2)
Early bracket lean: Alabama — Stuckey
#5 West Virginia (-9.5) vs. #12 Murray State
Friday 4 p.m. ET | San Diego, CA
This is a rough first-round draw for WVU, as Murray State’s strength is its guards. Jonathan Stark (21.8 ppg) and Ja Morant (12.6 ppg) are arguably the best backcourt duo in mid-major basketball, and the Racers have been efficient in press offense when teams have dared to press. Stark and Morant are excellent free-throw shooters and get to the line frequently, which is always an issue for the hyper-aggressive WVU defense. The Racers are weak at the rim defensively and not a particularly strong defensive rebounding team, which could ultimately prevent an upset. But this is as tough of a matchup as Bob Huggins could have drawn up, and being shipped out to San Diego does the Mountaineers no favors, either.
Early ATS lean: Murray State (+9.5)
Early bracket lean: West Virginia — Jordan Majewski
#4 Wichita State (-12) vs. #13 Marshall
Friday 1:30 p.m. ET | San Diego, CA
Analysis: This is an extremely tricky match up for Wichita State, and could be the least-talked-about potential first-round upset in the field. Gregg Marshall’s defense has had two serious flaws this year: It struggles to defend in transition, and it struggles to defend in pick-and-roll at every position. Dan D’Antoni’s offense is predicated on drag screens in transition and NBA-style spread pick-and-roll in the half court. Landry Shamet (15.0 ppg) is the NBA prospect in this game, but Marshall’s Jon Elmore (22.8 ppg, 6.9 apg, 6.0 rpg) has the ability to blow by him on the offensive end. Watch out for the Herd.
Early ATS lean: Marshall (+12)
Early bracket lean: Marshall — Jordan Majewski
#3 Texas Tech (-11) vs. #14 Stephen F. Austin
Thursday 9:27 p.m. ET | Dallas, TX
Analysis: A healthy Texas Tech is a potential Final Four team, but man oh man is this a tough first-round game for the Red Raiders. SFA turns teams over at the highest rate in the country, and Texas Tech’s inability to establish a secondary ballhandler beside Keenan Evans has been an issue all year. Texas Tech had its issues against Oklahoma State this year, a team that runs a similar denial-heavy defense as the Lumberjacks. Both of these coaches, Chris Beard and Kyle Keller, run extremely similar spread-motion offenses that utilize the athleticism of their bigs and their ability to play facing the rim. SFA has a devoted fan base and will be well-represented in Dallas, and the Red Raiders won’t be able to enjoy any “intimidation advantage.” Ultimately, SFA’s own turnover issues at the point should be enough for the Red Raiders to escape.
Early ATS lean: Stephen F. Austin (+11)
Early bracket lean: Texas Tech — Jordan Majewski
#6 Florida vs. #11 St. Bonaventure or UCLA
Thursday 9:57 p.m. ET | Dallas, TX
Analysis: Courtney Stockard is questionable for the Bonnies, but I still like their chances to advance past UCLA in the play-in game. St. Bonaventure has already heard critics question whether it should be in the field. That won’t sit well with a senior-laden team. UCLA is more talented but still very young and might have a couple of players already thinking about the NBA Draft.
With that said, Florida would be a big step up in the second game for the Bonnies. The Gators ranked second in defensive efficiency in the SEC, a league with a lot of good defensive teams.
Early ATS lean: N/A (no spread yet with play-in game)
Early bracket lean: Florida — Wes Reynolds
#7 Arkansas (PK) vs. #10 Butler
Friday 3:10 p.m. ET | Nashville, TN
Analysis: The Hogs are so poor defensively this year that Mike Anderson has even mixed in some zone. A solid point guard can keep Arkansas from dictating the fast pace it wants to play with, which Butler has in Kamar Baldwin (15.5 ppg). However, Butler’s defense has issues, as well. The Bulldogs lack lateral quickness at every position except the point. Neither team will get many stops, but Arkansas shoots free throws at 67.8% (301st) compared to Butler’s 77.1% (21st). Considering both defenses should have issues, we should see a lot of fouls. That favors Butler significantly and the margins are so tight in this matchup that the charity stripe will matter.
Early ATS lean: Butler (PK)
Early bracket lean: Butler — Stuckey
#2 Purdue (-20.5) vs. #15 Cal State Fullerton
Friday 12:40 p.m. ET | Nashville, TN
Analysis: Fullerton should have been a 16 seed, so the Boilers have a chance to notch the biggest blowout of the first round. If CSUF doesn’t get to the free-throw line, it’s unlikely to score efficiently, as the Titans own the nation’s highest free-throw rate. Purdue sends teams to the line at the seventh-lowest percentage in the country. The Titans’ post defense has been poor all year long, even in the Big West, so expect Purdue and 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas to get easy buckets at will.
Early ATS lean: Purdue (-20.5)
Early bracket lean: Purdue — Jordan Majewski
Photo via Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports